PCC censures newspaper for harassing pregnant lap-dancer

The Scottish Daily Record has been censured by the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) for harassing a pregnant woman after it had agreed to leave her alone.

Nicola Shields was reported to have become pregnant by professional footballer Sol Bamba who plays for the Scottish Premier League side Hibs. She was approached by the paper to confirm the story earlier in the year but had refused to speak and asked to be left alone.

The newspaper undertook to leave her alone but that didn’t stop a reporter pursuing her and a photograph being taken of her outside her house (which was up a private road).

The following headline appeared on August 18 this year: “I am pregnant by Hibs star Sol Bamba, claims lap dancer”

Shields complained to the PCC that the Daily Record had breached clauses 1 (Accuracy), 3 (Privacy) and 4 (Harassment) of the PCC Code.

Clause 1 complaint:
The paper had called her a ‘lap dancer’ when in fact she was/referred to herself as the manager of a gentlemens club.

Clause 3 complaint:
Taking a picture of her and trying to speak to her at her house was an invasion of privacy under the code.

Clause 4 complaint:
Continuing to seek to speak to her or follow or contact her amounted to harassment, especially as she had specifically said she did not want to comment and the paper had undertaken not to pursue her.

A lap dancer becoming pregnant by a professional footballer is classic tabloid material and too good a news story to resist BUT where someone has specifically said they do not wish to comment and is on their private property then the press have a duty to desist from pursuing them. This is especially so in this case given that the paper had already undertaken not to pursue Ms Shields. Refraining from following her does not mean they can’t cover the story but its naturally better to have a picture and a quote to accompany a headline so the temptation to misbehave is there.

While the reporter and photographer should have left Shields alone it is ultimately the editor of the paper who takes responsibility as it is their decision whether to include material and what they consider they can justifiably include.

In this case the Clause 1 complaint over the semantics of whether Shields was an actual lap dancer or instead the manager of a gentlemens club is not material to the story – pregnancy by a footballer and so its correct that it was rejected.

The Clause 3 complaint was however justified – under Clause 3 (iii) its ‘unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent’ – a private place being ‘public or private property where there is a legitimate expectation of privacy’. Shield’s house was up a private road and she had a legitimate expectation of privacy there (being able to photograph her from further afield using a long lens is no excuse as it is the image rather than the position of the photographer that will define if the privacy of the place or scene has been invaded). There is some editorial scope in the PCC Code for invading privacy but under Clause 3 (ii) in such a case ‘Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent.’ BUT in this case Shields had specifically refused consent and the paper agreed to leave her alone. Clause 3 (ii) also provides that ‘Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information’ BUT in this case she had chosen not to disclose and Sol Bamba had also denied he was the father. 3(ii) would come into play in a case where the person making the complaint had already got publicity or ‘sold their story’ and then sought to silence the press. So the paper was in clear breach of Clause 3 – and – even though the case wasn’t in court, would have breached the right to privacy under Art 8 of the European Convention as engaged through the Human Rights Act.

Having agreed to leave Shields alone the paper was clearly in breach of Clause 4 harassment – she had been persistently pursued and photographed after having asked the paper to desist. Clause 4(iii) provides that ‘Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.’

Mediabeak concludes that while Ms Shields may have her adjudication from the PCC and while the paper removed the photograph THE ARTICLE IS STILL HERE

So the adjudication is not much use in terms of remedying the damage the story may have caused. As ever with privacy cases the protection offered by the PCC code is impotent and if its damages or an injunction one is after then it will take litigation or at least the threat of it to engage the back door privacy protection offered by the Mosley-led mish mash of case law and its varied interpretation of Article 8 of the European Convention.

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